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Published: 2011/07/02
by Mike Greenhaus

Simple Pleasures: From Ball Things Reconsidered (The Phish Festival Newspaper)

Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011

A few songs into their first set, Phish paused for a moment after “Bathtub Gin.” “We’re not in any rush ‘cause we’re going to be here for four days or something,” Trey Anastasio said between laughs. He then pointed to a Ferris Wheel located across the field. “Let’s all wave to the guy in the top car.” The crowd obliged and—for few a seconds at least—the entire audience took a break from the show to say hi to just one fan.

It was a small moment but one that summed up the first night of Super Ball IX, and the spirit of Phish’s trademark festivals in general. While there will inevitably be other shows with bust outs, deep jams and choreographed holiday spectacles, Phish is never more relaxed onstage than during its festival sets—and for good reason. Without the time restrictions of a traditional amphitheater or arena gig, the group’s sets can be longer, stranger and more playful. The show’s grand backdrop only adds to the cinematic quality of the experience.

Whether they take place in the middle of a tour like 1999’s Camp Oswego or at the end of the summer like most of the group’s other camping events, Phish’s festivals also function as something of a survey of a tour’s best moments. Super Ball IX’s first set was no exception. Opening with a loose, bouncy “Possum”—which tied “Backwards Down the Number Line” as the most played song on the first leg of Phish’s summer tour—the band ran through a number of this year’s most emblematic cover tunes. The Vermont Quartet revisited Frank Zappa’s “Peaches en Regalia,” one of the many lost covers the group has revived since reuniting in 2009, and nodded to Super Ball IX’s direct predecessor Festival 8 with a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Torn & Frayed,” which Phish added to its repertoire during the ¬Exile on Main Street Halloween set.

Though Phish has yet to directly cover one of the three seminal bands at the original Watkins Glen Summer Jam festival [the Grateful Dead, The Band and The Allman Brothers], the group did close its set with “Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn),” a Bob Dylan song that The Band originally helped record as part of The Basement Tapes sessions. Phish also revived another cherished rarity, Davie Bowie’s classic Hunky Dory track, “Life on Mars?,” for the first time since their February 15, 2003 Las Vegas performance. Funky versions of “The Moma Dance” and “Wolfman’s Brother” were the set’s improvisational highlights.

Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011

If Phish’s first set revisited many of the more popular songs from this summer’s tour, then the group’s second set felt right in line with this summer’s slightly revamped style of jamming. When Phish opened its summer tour at the site of another historic rock festival, Bethel, NY’s Woodstock, this past May, the group presented a new, patient improv style that mixed some of the ambient textures of its “2.0” years with the precision of its more recent work. Talking Heads’ cover “Crosseyed and Painless”—a song Phish performed infrequently from 1999-2010—in particular benefited from this style. So it makes sense the song has had something of a renaissance this summer. Last night’s version was preceded by a strange, freeform jam that included some spooky sounds and cackles from the members of the band.

Elements of the song’s repetitive, minimalist chord progressions—a mixture of Afro beat precision and Brian Eno experimentation—ran through the first half of Phish’s second set as well. The song bled into a rocking “Chalk Dust Torture” as glowsticks and other colorful toys filled the air. After a funky “Sand,” a bouncy “The Wedge” and a solid “Mike’s Song,” the band moved into the night’s improvisational highlight, a blissed out “Simple” that recalled the dark textures of The Story of the Ghost companion The Siket Disc but flirted with the bass-heavy groove of “Down with Disease.” A clear, intense highlight of the night, “Simple” spiraled past the 14-minute mark and even included a tease of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun.” The song eventually segued into “Bug,” a slow-building number that has aged from a simple the Farmhouse ditty to a powerful, “Stella Blue”-style ballad. As the song built, a series of paper lanterns were also released from near the venue’s sound board.

The second half of the group’s second set sandwiched another meaty ballad, “Joy,” between old favorite show stoppers “Weekapaug Groove” and “Character Zero” (with “The Horse” and “Silent in the Morning” thrown in for good measure). The recent Dude of Life/Trey Anastasio collaboration “Show of Life” closed the show but many in attendance were more focused on Anastasio’s goodnight speech, hoping for a clue about a possible surprise late night set (the guitarist remained mum).

But, though Phish is the only band on Super Ball’s bill, their sets were only part of the day’s festivities. Fans played Wiffle ball, shopped at the farmer’s market and wandered through a serious of art installations that traced the festival’s Independence Day theme from the Revolutionary War through the Industrial Revolution and into the future (a EPCOT-style mirror ball). The unorthodox What Cheer? Brigade marching band also paraded through the festival grounds throughout the day and—at one point—performed while riding the festival’s Ferris Wheel (a representative from the Super Ball IX artistic team described the performance as a parade in a circle).

Fans hoping to sit and relax for a few minutes also zoned out in front of the festival’s cinema screen, which showed everything from horror films to Caddyshack. Things got really trippy after Phish’s second set let out and the festival mysteriously started playing Talking Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense a few hours after Phish covered a classic Heads track. As the band sings in “Backwards Down the Number Line,” the only rule is it begins.

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